When a group of revered and influential rockers come back together after a decade of acrimonious separation and/or inactivity, all but the most hard-hearted punks can grant them one lap around the reunion circuit playing the old should-have-been-hits, if only to collect the accolades and the cash that probably eluded them the first time.
Boston’s proto-alternative quartet the Pixies took that victory lap in 2004. Now, while they remain popular enough to play three nights at the Aragon Ballroom–Friday and Saturday sold out, though Thursday only was about half full–it’s hard to consider them anything but a cynical corporation cashing in on blatant nostalgia–a hipper version of Creedence Clearwater Revisited or Journey and whoever is singing with that group these days.
Bandleader Black Francis, bassist Kim Deal, guitarist Joey Santiago and drummer David Lovering have had nearly five years during their second act to prove that they are once again a vital, vibrant and forward-moving creative unit. Instead, absent even the whiff of a new album, the twist they’ve put on their latest tour is that it’s the 20th anniversary celebration of “Doolittle,” their second and best studio album, and an epic of free-associated weirdness, twisted sexual imagery and religious symbolism.
Before launching into the album proper on night one at the Aragon Thursday, the group screened “Un chien andalou,” the 1929 Surrealist film by Luis Bunel and Salvador Dali that inspired some of the songs’ lyrics. Then the band let loose a salvo of B-sides from the same era–“Dancing the Manta Ray,” “Weird at My School,” “Bailey’s Walk” and “Manta Ray”–none of them especially noteworthy on record or onstage.
Finally we were into a track-by-track reading of 1989’s still inscrutable classic, starting with “Debaser,” rolling through the standouts “Here Comes Your Man” and “Monkey Gone to Heaven,” bogging down in the middle of side two just like the vinyl LP and wrapping up with “Gouge Away.”
Black Francis screamed and shouted, and Deal added the skewed harmonies. Santiago churned out those unique acid-surf riffs, and Lovering hammered the drums like Dave Grohl’s uncle. And throughout, they all showed their mastery of those quiet/loud/quiet dynamic shifts that became an alternative-rock trope.
None of it was embarrassing, but none of it was extraordinary, either. The Pixies were a stilted, static band that added little fire to the songs in live performance in ’89, and the same is true in ’09. This time, however, you could buy a live digital recording of the show you just saw for $25 on the way out, to relive the experience you already bought with your $44.75 ticket.
Of course, reliving the experience is what the new millennial Pixies are all about. And they seem happy to continue facilitating that as long as people want to keep buying it.